Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
Crossover Appeal: Red Charcoal's grilled combo of ribeye beef, short rib, salmon and shrimp.
San Jose's Red Charcoal could help Korean cuisine find its way into the American mainstream
By Stett Holbrook
SILICON VALLEY is on a first-name basis with the cuisines of place like Mexico, Thailand, China, India and the Middle East. Once immigrants from these areas settled here and started opening restaurants from their native countries, Silicon Valley adopted them as its own and the restaurants' clientele grew beyond their native countrymen.
But that's not the case with Korean food. While Silicon Valley has a significant Korean population, the food has yet to catch on the way other ethnic foods have. We haven't reached the point yet when some Costco-shopping, Coors-drinking white guy says to his wife, "Hey, honey, let's eat Korean tonight. I've got a hankering for some bibimbap and kimchi."
It's not for lack of choices. A drive down El Camino Real in Santa Clara reveals many Korean restaurants and markets. Perhaps Korean food is still too foreign. Korean food doesn't offer the fiesta atmosphere of Mexican food or the exotic appeal of Indian and Thai food. Many of the Korean restaurants I've been to don't make a lot of effort to attract a non-Korean, crossover clientele.
Maybe that's a good thing. Appealing to white bread American palates inevitably means watering down the food to avoid flavors, textures and ingredients deemed too challenging to the newcomer.
But Korean food deserves a wider audience. America has nothing on Korea when it comes to grilled meats and fish. Korean barbecue restaurants allow you to grill your own meat at a grill mounted in the middle of the table. Another kind of Korean restaurant specializes in soontofu, a bubbling cauldron of silky tofu in a rich, spicy broth with bits of meat or seafood. It's a satisfying, warming dish.
Yet another kind of Korean restaurant serves rice and noodle dishes. Other than kimchi, the spicy, pickled cabbage Korean staple, bibimbap is probably the best-known Korean dish. It's a bowl of rice with bits of meat, vegetables, chile paste and a cracked egg on top. A generous serving of panchan, the small plates of condiments, pickled vegetables and side dishes served with a Korean meal, allows you to sample many different flavors in one sitting.
Given our the South Bay's increasingly cosmopolitan demographics, I think Korean food's day is coming. Places like San Jose's Red Charcoal may be the beginning. Red Charcoal combines several elements of Korean food under one roof. Unlike the staid look of many Korean restaurants, Red Charcoal combines eclectic art in the form a Styrofoam sculpture, brightly colored walls, sappy pop music and an open kitchen. Food is served on attractive, earth-toned plates and bowls.
While the restaurant doesn't have tabletop grills, grilled meats play a starring role. Grilled short ribs ($10.50) are thick and juicy but sauced a little thin. I would have preferred a thicker marinade and a deeper, more caramelized finish. The spicy mixed grill ($12.50) is better and combines expertly grilled salmon, pork, chicken and shrimp. It's all lightly bathed in a spicy, slightly sweet sauce. Both dishes are topped with fresh sautéed pea shoots, a nice touch that adds a flavorful splash of color.
From the stir-fried section of the menu, the spicy jabche ($9.50) is a winner that combines thin glass noodles with pork, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and cabbage in an ample spicy-sour sauce that's clean and light. Seafood thin noodle soup ($8.50) looked great, the bowl brimming with shrimp, scallops, clams, calamari and various vegetables. The noodles were overcooked, and the broth too thin. But it's a healthy, light dish.
Red Charcoal's mushroom soft tofu soup ($8.50) arrives bubbling furiously with an egg for the cracking on the side. It's good, but like several items on the menu, the soup seems to have been made with a lighter touch, perhaps an effort to appeal to those not accustomed to Korean food.
Service is quick and friendly. Soon after you sit down, you're served a rather drab iceberg lettuce salad and a tiny egg roll. The panchan offering is one of the smallest I've seen at a Korean restaurant, just some pickled daikon radish, cucumbers and peanuts. It's free, so it's hard to complain, especially when the entrees are generous. My big gripe is the kimchi. I can accept a skimpy serving of panchan, but having to pay for a side dish of kimchi is just wrong. That's like paying for ketchup with your burger and fries.
Meals end, somewhat incongruously, with a tiny frozen cream puff dabbed with fruit jelly. It didn't strike me as particularly Korean, but I ate it anyway. While the people that eat at Red Charcoal are mostly Asian, I've seen a few white faces, too. The slightly Americanized menu may not appeal to traditionalists, but Red Charcoal may be on to something with its cross-cultural looks and accessible menu. As long as the restaurant doesn't make too many concessions to Western tastes, I think they're on the right track.
Address: 1701 Lundy Road, Suite 110, San Jose.
Hours: Open daily 11am-3:30pm and 5:30-10pm.
Price range: $7.50-$12.50.
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